The latest estimate of the world’s demise has humanity’s fate sealed on Dec. 21, the Winter Solstice. If we manage to survive, historians will no doubt write about how we avoided certain doom only to face another, equally apocalyptic threat—the dreaded fiscal cliff. Yes, we might finally see the culmination of our elected official’s inability to accomplish anything of benefit to the rest of us, and it all seems so surreal, so distant, so beyond our control.
But there is a way to get closer to the action, and all it takes is a trip to Essex County, home of the North Country’s own fiscal cliff debacle.
Essex County’s fiscal cliff is not quite of the same magnitude as its big brother, but its proceedings do reflect a similar indecisive bickering that has been playing out at the national level. There are a lot of numbers and figures and percentages involved, but the bottom line is, if the Essex County board fails to start thinking ahead, things could become much worse in the upcoming years, regardless of who’s in charge.
Essex County Manager Dan Palmer knows this, and he has officially removed himself from the equation as of Jan. 1. His announcement to retire came after he failed to convince county supervisors to accept a 3-year budget plan, and he isn’t going out without a few parting words. Palmer has warned the board that its current course, which will likely see the wounded budget haphazardly stitched together by the fund balance, is a dangerous one at best.
Here’s how it works: Essex County collects taxes from its citizens and uses that money to pay for all kinds of services. There are things that have a known budget, like money allotted to pay county employees salaries, and there are things that are budgeted for, like road work, that might come in under that budget. The unused tax money is the fund balance, and it is particularly good for dealing with emergencies, such as the spring storm of 2011 and damage incurred by Tropical Storm Irene, which depleted the fund balance by $2.8 million last year.
Essex County’s current course will see it utilizing that fund balance money to the tune of about $7 million to balance the county budget and meet the tax cap. The $2.8 million that went toward post-Irene repairs is eventually supposed to be repaid by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, but it should be put back where it belongs — in the fund balance. The same can be said for the other $4 million or so of fund balance money that is being used to keep the tax levy down. As Irene taught us, the fund balance can come in handy, but the current budget proposal would only leave about $1 million in there if FEMA doesn’t come through, and that’s a scary thought considering the damage that has been incurred by storms in recent years.
The kicker here is that the county tabled one of the more solid proposals — raising the occupancy tax to 5 percent, a 2 percent increase. The increase might not be popular among hoteliers, particularly the small scale operations, who fear that the extra charge would result in a decrease in tourism. But would a 2-percent increase, which amounts to $3 more for a $150-a-night room, really deter people that much? It might be worth including something like that in the budget, considering County Treasurer Mike Diskin projects it will bring in $1.2 million.
The occupancy tax certainly wouldn’t solve all of Essex County’s problems, but it would exhibit a modicum of foresight on the part of Essex County supervisors. The time to patch holes and wait until next year to see if they’ve sprung a leak is long gone — now is the time for action and making decisions that will have positive and expected long-term consequences. Dan Palmer knows it, which is refreshing until you realize that is also why he’s retiring — he doesn’t have faith that the current board can accomplish this, and he doesn’t want to be standing next to that dam when it bursts.
At a recent meeting, Town of Moriah Supervisor Thomas Scozzafava said that personnel is the elephant in the room, and that the county needs to consider consolidating some of its staff, which is probably true, but the real elephant in the room isn’t the pachyderm — it’s the people feeding it.